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The Problem with Stars

Confession: I’ve resisted joining Goodreads for the longest time. While I’ve long used–and appreciated!–the site to get information about books and read non-editorial reviews, I didn’t want an author account.* The main reason why? The stars. 

To clarify, I don’t think there is anything wrong with rating and reviewing books, and I certainly don’t judge anyone who does. Ratings can be a very useful tool for readers, and even authors! My problem is that I personally can’t figure out a way to use the stars that seems fair to me as a reader as well as fair to the rest of the people on the site.
The thing is, the star rating system (on Goodreads, Amazon, or any site that encourages quantitative ratings of books) doesn’t use a standardized metric. Each individual on the site has to come up with their own, unique rating system–and they might vary their method depending on the book, their mood, or changing tastes. That’s how you get one-star reviews of Jane Eyre and five-star reviews of critically-trashed commercial fiction. Some people rate based on personal opinion. Some based on quality of the writing, despite whether or not they enjoyed the work. Others rate on whether their expectations (based on category, genre, etc.) were met. (To be honest, that’s probably the method that makes the most sense to me. Otherwise I would feel weird about giving five stars to both a lauded classic and a beach read, you know? They weren’t intended to be the same type of work or reading experience–and that’s okay.)
If a reader wants an apple but gets an orange, is that 1 star for not being the desired apple? Or however many stars the book deserves as an orange? Because that orange book was never intended to satisfy apple cravings, anyway.

(Now I want some fruit.)

A solution, of course, is writing a review that explains the rationale behind the stars. But some people–like me–don’t want to review. And for that reason, I’m shelving books aplenty on Goodreads, but I won’t be rating them. It doesn’t seem fair to assign a quantitative measure without explaining how I got there. I really value Goodreads as a reference and a community, and I’m excited to become more active there, but for now I think I’ll keep a blank slate of stars.
Are you on Goodreads? How do you approach reviews and stars?

*But now I have one. Let’s be friends!

11 Responses to The Problem with Stars

  1. I’m a non-rating/starring Goodreads user! I use Goodreads to keep track of what books I want to read, and which ones I’ve read. I always appreciate other people’s reviews, but don’t feel the need to write my own, or even star books.

  2. I used to star books on Goodreads, but I deleted all my ratings a while ago. Honestly, I felt bad giving only three stars to a book that I liked perfectly well just because I didn’t “really like” it or find it “amazing.” These days I pretty much avoid GR like the plague anyway, and I have a friend keeping an eye on my book’s ratings for me.

  3. I’m a Goodreads junkie–as someone who forgets everything about most books (good or bad) about five minutes after reading them, my reviews are first and foremost for me to keep track of my own thoughts! I also love that I can embed them into my blog, so I can easily share reviews along with small cover images. But I’ve been thinking about this whole star thing, particularly in light of my last review. I wound up giving the book four stars because I could see it being really popular with some readers, especially reluctant ones, and that’s worth a lot to me. However, it was a three-star read for ME, for many of the same reasons I think other people would enjoy it. I didn’t think it was fair to give it the lower rating for, essentially, being an orange and not an apple. But now I’m thinking about using stars only on select books–to denote “best of class” (four stars) or “best in show” (five stars)–rather than giving all books a star ranking. Mostly, I use the stars to sort books when I’m looking for recommendations anyway–so I don’t really need to see the ones I wasn’t really enthusiastic about.

  4. I have a Goodreads account, which I’ve used maybe twice. I think I’ve rated about the same number of books. Whenever I use stars, I feel the need to justify and then I just get rambly 🙂

  5. I really like Goodreads. I give stars and add the reviews I post on my blog to clarify my ratings. Like you mentioned, I rate books based on whether they met my expectations, no matter if they’re adult literary fiction or silly middle grade novels. That said, I RARELY (if ever) rate a book as less than three stars. If I don’t like it enough to give it at least that, then I usually don’t finish it and therefor don’t rate it at all.

    There’s a small group of people on GRs whose reviews I follow and have a lot of confidence in, but most reviews I take with a grain of salt. Reading is so subjective. I’ve found many one-star ratings listed under my very favorite books and, conversely, I’ve hated some books that have above a four-star average. To each his own, I suppose. 🙂

  6. Rachel says:

    I LOVE Goodreads. (Yes we’re on there as “friends”!) I review very honestly over there and I read a ton of big name bloggers’ reviews too. We generally have the same thoughts so I won’t read a review based on theirs or will if they really are up in arms/excited about it. I think the stars rating is confusing but I use it as honestly as I can and I try to read all the 3-star ratings first since they seem to be the most fair, in terms of the reviews whether the person liked or not. 🙂

  7. OOOH – I think am now your friend on Goodreads. Also, I shelved your book, which I can’t wait to read, btw. But I agree with you about the rating thing. And…I’m always want a 4.5 star or a 3.5 star. This five-star thing is too limiting.

    Great post!

  8. Rebecca B says:

    It’s really helpful to hear others’ thoughts on using Goodreads. It is kind of fascinating to see how different readers use the site.

    (Alison–when I’ve tried to rate in the past, I always wanted fractions of stars, too!)

  9. Jaime Morrow says:

    I think you’ve summed up perfectly the problem with rating with stars. My sister and I have talked about this a lot lately. What if you thought the writing in a book was incredible, but you hated the story? (I read one like this not all that long ago.) so difficult to nail down some meaningless star rating when you’re that divided on the book itself. I’m finding more and more that if I’m so divided, I just don’t bother rating a book. And, like you, I really don’t want to review every book I read (or even very many of them). Great post, Rebecca. Lots to think about here.

  10. Rebecca says:

    First off, amazing post! I’ve used Goodreads ever since I started blogging and it’s such a great, well-rounded, informative, updated bookish site for bookish people so yay for finally joining! Everyone has different ways of ratings books and even my ratings have changed since out started out. In the beginning, I think sometimes I overrated in excitement. That’s not to mean I didn’t love the book but if I thought it was amazing, 5 stars! This has nothing to do with stars but oh my goodness, did I overuse my exclamation mark key. Seriously, I wish someone would of told me to chill because now looking back, I just face palm – and make sure I limit myself so it stands out and calls attention when I do decide to exclaim. But anyway… How I review books? I rate on both a enjoyment scale and quality scale by incorparating both factors into stars. So a mixture of both? But everyone’s different and has their own way of rating so while so and so and I might both really enjoy a book, she might rate it five stars and I might hang back and give it a four even though after finishing it my reaction was ALL THE STARS but upon reflection I changed my mind for whatever reason. It just depends on the reviewer, the starrer and how they rate.

  11. Rebecca B says:

    Thanks for the very thoughtful comment! It’s so interesting to see how different readers use the site, and moreover, how they assess books. Way back when Goodreads first started, I had an account (now defunct) and I definitely went 5-star crazy, too. 🙂